March 6, 2013

Lawmakers tackle proposal to boost marketing of lobster

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Fearing back-to-back seasons of record landings but diminished prices, a majority of lobstermen, processors and dealers told lawmakers Wednesday that they're willing to pay more to do their jobs if the state will spend more marketing its trademark product.

That was the message sent from the lobster industry to the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee, which is considering a bill that would increase the marketing of Maine lobsters by jacking up surcharges on lobstermen and dealer licenses.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, is the result of nearly a year's worth of stakeholder meetings stemming from a difficult 2012 season, in which lobstermen hauled more crustaceans than the year before but demand and prices fell.

The proposal, designed to expand the market for Maine lobster, is supported by the Department of Marine Resources. It restructures the duties and composition of the Legislature-created Lobster Promotion Council, effectively honing the agency's marketing mission.  

The council already collects surcharges from lobster license holders, crab fishermen, dealers and industry related services. Supporters of Kruger's bill argue that the council's current budget isn't sufficient to expand into other markets.

This year’s marketing budget is about $380,000. Kruger's bill would increase the budget to $1 million in 2014, $2 million in 2015 and $3 million in 2016 through step increases in license surcharges. 

Dealers and lobstermen testified in favor of the bill on Wednesday. While some lamented the steep increases in surcharges, other said it was necessary.

Robert Baines, a lobsterman from South Thomaston and chairman of the Lobster Advisory Council, said it was usually difficult to unite lobstermen on a single issue, but they see no other way forward.

"Our industry certainly needs some help and this is the only way we think we can do it," Baines said.

The Maine Lobstermen's Association, the Downeast Lobstersmen's Association and other stakeholder groups agreed. Patrice McCarron, director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said the bill was imperative so that the marketing council has a "predictable and stable long-term funding source."

According to the Department of Marine Resources, lobstermen landed 123 million pounds of lobsters in 2012, an increase of approximately 18 million pounds over 2011.

However, the total value for landings was $331 million, down $3.7 million from 2011. The average price of $2.69 per pound for 2012 was Maine's lowest on record since 1994, according to Department of Marine Resources reports.

By comparison, 2011 landings were 20 million pounds less at nearly 105 million pounds. The value of that smaller catch was $3.19 a pound and close to $335 million.

The industry fears conditions are lining up to create a repeat of 2012, including an abbreviated hard shell season due to warm water and the spread of shell disease northward from southern New England. That bacterial infection has decimated lobster populations, particularly in Rhode Island.

Some lobstermen are already reporting sightings of soft-shell, or shedder, lobsters. Shedders fetch a much lower market price than hard-shell lobsters. 

It's too early to know for sure whether the soft-shell lobsters that have been sighted in the Gulf of Maine are part of a normal cycle in which a small percentage of the population molts early, according to marine scientists and shellfish monitors.

 

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